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Comparing the Cubs to the 2004 Cardinals

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The 2016 Chicago Cubs are leaving all of baseball in its dust. How does this potent Cubs lineup stack up against the best Cardinals team of its generation?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

It's a shame that the collection of players who are currently playing their home games on the north side of Chicago are playing under the team name "Chicago Cubs", because putting aside my blind baseball loyalties and arbitrary tribalism for a moment, the 2016 Cubs are so fun.

And I don't mean fun in the "check out Joe Maddon and his wacky antics" way. I mean in a "I enjoy watching high-quality baseball and this very good baseball team is aesthetically pleasing and I want to enjoy this but I can't because it's the freaking Cubs, man" way. But regardless of one's level of enjoymenet with the Cubs' success, one must, even if begrudgingly, tip his or her cap to them. While everything we know about baseball suggests that their current 118 win pace is probably unsustainable, they have built up a comfortable enough cushion that even if they come back down to Earth a little bit, the Cubs are clearly a threat to win their first World Series in 108 years.

And with the very real possibility that this Cubs team is not only great but historically great, it's worth comparing the Cubs not only to their 2016 contemporaries, but to some of the great baseball teams of the past. Enter the 2004 Cardinals.

The 2004 Cardinals are, anecdotally, the best Cardinals team I've ever seen. They had the best winning percentage of any Cardinals team since World War II and had three legitimate MVP candidates in the heart of the lineup. And if any team in Cardinals lore could top the 2016 Cubs, it would be this one.

Here is a breakdown of their lineups by position, comparing 2004 Cardinals results with 2016 Cubs updated ZiPS projections. Since the defensive statistics from ZiPS lead to a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, I used each Cub's 2015-2016 actual defensive runs above average and adjusted it based on his ZiPS-projected plate appearances. It's an inexact science but it provides something of a snapshot.

Catcher

G PA HR BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA Def BsR fWAR
Mike Matheny 122 419 5 23 83 .247 .292 .348 .640 .275 7.4 -3.3 -0.2
Miguel Montero 101 398 10 46 98 .223 .322 .346 .668 .293 5.1 0.4 1.1

Overall, Montero is a better offensive player and Matheny was a better defensive player. Catching defense is somewhat of a gray area in sabermetrics, and while I suspect the actual gap in WAR between the two is closer than the 1.3 wins it appears to be on the surface, I would still give the slight edge to Montero. But making a comparison of these two teams a comparison of catchers would be like evaluating the Beatles and Rolling Stones on which one had better studio trumpet players.

First base

G PA HR BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA Def BsR fWAR
Albert Pujols 154 692 46 84 52 .331 .415 .657 1.072 .442 -8.1 1.0 7.8
Anthony Rizzo 157 694 38 88 109 .271 .384 .537 .921 .391 -7.9 -1.9 5.7

Here we go.

Anthony Rizzo might be the best first baseman in baseball today. Only Chris Davis has (arguably) better power and only Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto have better plate discipline, but Rizzo combines the two beautifully. He's also a generally top defensive first baseman (the negative defensive values are misleading, as they are the result of positional adjustments which suppress the defensive value of relatively insignificant defensive positions).

With that said, Albert Pujols was an alien. And he had four seasons in St. Louis with more fWAR and two more with only 0.1 less fWAR than 2004. This wasn't even peak Albert Pujols. Anthony Rizzo is great. 2004 Albert Pujols was better.

Second base

G PA HR BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA Def BsR fWAR
Tony Womack 145 606 5 36 60 .307 .349 .385 .734 .324 4.4 8.1 2.8
Ben Zobrist 137 601 17 84 71 .288 .389 .457 .846 .367 -8.5 0.4 4.7

Tony Womack was worth 1.6 career fWAR and 2.8 fWAR in his lone season in St. Louis. Womack was a far more famous baseball player than his career advanced stats would imply, and it seems that in general, he got in just under the gun for being a celebrated player rather than the maligned player he would be in the 2010s: he was a high-volume base stealer (and, to his credit, an efficient one), and that earned him attention, but he lacked power or much of an ability to draw a walk.

But in 2004, he was genuinely very good. While he was a better baserunner and defender, even considering versatility, than Zobrist is, I would still give Ben Zobrist the edge. But considering the Cubs had to throw $56 million at Zobrist while the Cardinals got Tony Womack's peak season for the league minimum, it still doesn't look half-bad for the Cardinals.

Shortstop

G PA HR BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA Def BsR fWAR
Edgar Renteria 149 642 10 39 78 .287 .327 .401 .728 .314 7.0 2.2 2.0
Addison Russell 136 542 15 51 126 .257 .332 .424 .756 .326 17.7 1.5 3.7

Like Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria was a good player who had a down 2004. Unlike Pujols, who was still the best hitter in the world not named Barry Bonds during his lean year, Renteria was more along the lines of average. Not bad but not spectacular. During his age 21 rookie season in 2015, Addison Russell topped Renteria's 2004 and early returns in 2016 suggest that he has improved. While it might be tempting to give Renteria some bonus points for the fact that his true talent was probably better than 2.0 WAR, I won't, since I'm also accepting Tony Womack at face value. It's only fair. Advantage Cubs.

Third base

G PA HR BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA Def BsR fWAR
Scott Rolen 142 593 34 72 92 .314 .409 .598 1.007 .422 23.4 4.4 9.0
Kris Bryant 154 678 28 77 182 .267 .360 .480 .840 .364 10.7 1.8 5.9

Kris Bryant is already awesome and he may yet improve. I joked when he came up that he could have the career of Graig Nettles, perhaps the best eligible third baseman not in the Hall of Fame, and be considered wildly disappointing and, well, even by that standard he has lived up to unreasonable expectations.

But one of the dozen third basemen in baseball history better than the aforementioned Nettles by fWAR is Scott Rolen. And in 2004, he was at the peak of his powers. Advantage Cardinals.

Center field

G PA HR BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA Def BsR fWAR
Jim Edmonds 153 612 42 101 150 .301 .418 .643 1.061 .436 8.2 2.9 8.3
Dexter Fowler 142 617 13 83 136 .283 .388 .454 .842 .368 3.0 3.7 5.2

Relative to the VEB writing staff, I'm ice-cold in my opinions of Jim Edmonds, so if you're going to question Edmonds to one of us, I'm probably the one least likely to physically harm you (metaphorically, of course). But as good as Dexter Fowler has been, it's still Edmonds by a country mile.

Corner outfield

G PA HR BB K AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA Def BsR fWAR
Reggie Sanders 135 487 22 33 118 .260 .315 .482 .797 .336 3.2 4.1 2.4
Ray Lankford/Larry Walker 117 396 16 27 50 .268 .371 .486 .857 .366 -5.8 -0.3 1.8
Jason Heyward 148 632 11 71 111 .261 .349 .379 .728 .323 16.8 3.1 3.3
Jorge Soler 114 404 12 38 107 .230 .305 .388 .693 .302 -12.0 -1.2 -0.4

I recognize that this is a somewhat weird grouping, but since Reggie Sanders switched from right field to left following the arrival of Larry Walker to St. Louis, the fair approach seemed to be to consider Ray Lankford's numbers before the Walker acquisition in addition to Walker's following it. Admittedly, some estimating had to be done with Lankford and Walker's baserunning and defensive metrics, but they come fairly close.

Anyway, the Cardinals have the edge here despite Jason Heyward being the best of the group, though I could see the argument against him if you are not a strong believer in defensive metrics. I believe the scale is close enough to accurate that I'd pick Heyward, but I can see the argument otherwise. The real issue is with Jorge Soler, a considerable dropoff from the injured Kyle Schwarber.

There are enough flashes of brilliance from Soler that I can see why some would pick the Cubs, but I would take the Cardinals' corner outfielders here.

So...what then?

By my tally, I side with the Cardinals on four positions and the Cubs on four positions. The two teams have similar strengths, and three of the Cubs with whom I am not siding (Rizzo, Bryant, Fowler) are among the best players on the team: it just so happens the Cardinals had Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds.

But two points, really.

  1. The Cubs have a very good lineup. They might have the best lineup in the league. Every team in baseball should be rightfully scared of them.
  2. We've seen this kind of lineup before. We saw this lineup carry a somewhat pedestrian rotation to 105 wins. And we saw them bounced from the playoffs with a whimper against the Boston Red Sox.
The season is not over. Anything can happen. At this point, even if you don't root for it, there's nothing wrong with appreciating what the Cubs are doing, with what they have the potential to continue to do, while remembering that final results are not yet determined.